Ms. Never | Joel’s Last Night, First Night – A Short Story

The following is an excerpt chapter from Ms. Never (published November 1, 2019) by Colin Dodds, whose poetry was previously published here at Visitant.

The most recent description of Ms. Never:

Ms. Never is the story of a woman with apocalyptic depression, and a man who buys human souls using the terms of service in cell-phone contracts. They fall in love and soon have to risk everything to save their family – and reality itself. “an exceptional work… a fantastical tale…” – Kirkus Reviews (STARRED REVIEW)

 


 

Joel’s Last Night, First Night
-a short story

 

A tank of gas is cheaper than a room, or about the same out here. And God knows how long sleep will last. Get a hit of the heebie-jeebies at five a.m., and you’re up with the shivers. Good money gone on a bed for sleep never slept. Just pacing in a room, accused again, this time by the lamp, the alarm clock. One same night, always, eyeball-peeled and too tired to sleep. Fucking fine, blame someone, blame the curve of the earth, blame bad luck, blame the miserable minutes loving their own company and clustering up.

Who knows? Maybe this is the night it all turns around. Maybe it can all turn around. Getting sleepy. Car’s warm. Here come the dreams. Hope they can make the sense that dodges the drift all the other senses made. Flanking maneuvers, logic lining up with searchlights, getting the place surrounded.

But there are shadows to hide a dream. Split the seam and go for the House. Bastards thought they won, but they didn’t think of this—a guy sleeping in a car. Secret agent on the road. Road to Damascus. Roads’re where it all happens. Roads and dreams and hitting rock bottom. Gas station liquor wine with its alcohol level right up to what they let the doomed convenience store clerks sell. It may help yet. Helps more than anything else in the damn place. That and gas—they take you somewhere else.

A land called Else—parked a solid distance from the streetlights. Camping. Check your work, check your nauseous, fortified wine dreams against the stars. Crank the seat back and push for that extra inch. Crush whatever got left in the backseat. Fucking garbage probably. Oh, right. Shit. The gift for the kid. Another bad call. Another apology, another disappointed wag of another tired face. Fuck it. Crush it worse. Get past being forgivable. Have a laugh. Heels in the reddish poly-vinyl pubic-hair dirt mat. Replaceable anyway, if you’re a fucking nitpicker. Replaceable if you expect to outlive your car, maybe sell it, trade it in. You just go from broke to broke, but what? Shine for a week? Come on. Only a bad fool can fool themselves so easily.

Click, click into reverse, push, press, and thrust. Good for the back, the big arch, like trying to sexually harass the steering wheel. Hump, hump, hump like a rock star before a football dome of fans. But here, it’s just sad, pathetic, crazy. Who cares? No one can see. Far from the parking lot lights, high like UFOs, bright like pills taste.

It’s dark here. That’s the real luxury, darkness. No one any good to see, then darkness. Nothing dramatic. Just fuck them. Darkness. There’s a career. Get a job selling darkness. Wherever you can get it and whatever it costs—a big future to be had in no future at all.

Darkness. By the pine trees the bastards haven’t gotten to chopping yet, darkness. Parked in old snow with grip enough on the dirty plowed pack. Can still get out in the morning. But no more about the morning. God, no. Car backed up past the shadows off the road. Little semicircle carved for breakdowns. Little mercy. Maybe even parking for a trailhead if anyone gave a shit, or anyone thought these woods would last another few years. Now just a little clearing for snowbanks dumped by plow drivers. Could’ve been a plow driver. Maybe still could.

The maybe’s what kills. Maybe keeps the dreams from adding up. Maybe keeps the right words from coming at the interview with the soon-sad-faced men, the alarmed-then-stony ladies. It all started out so optimistic. And now old. The damage visible and proven by years.

Optimistic? Now? In this used-up world? That’s not fair, though. Be fair. Learn that much. The world—used up? Chalk it up to being tired. Think good thoughts. Put the car in gear, reverse up the snowbank, snow mound, to the crunch, a little deeper in the shadows. Optimism—that you’ll be asleep before the plows come with their yellow flashers. But the snow makes everything so quiet. It is a mercy. No, it’s more than that—it’s a grace.

So, gratitude and reverse, harder. Toe to the pedal, back arched like the steering wheel was yearning for you. Though no one is. Up the edge, so the bumper presses the hard, dirty ice and wet snow.

It will work out. After a good night’s sleep, anything’s possible. Who said that? Mother? No. Another mother, from an advertisement. The idea of a mother, of motherhood. The one that people like. The one they can use to sell soup. That mother. She says good night. Says it’s been a hard day. Says, don’t worry. Just sleep. It’s been a bitch. Everyone knows.

And in the morning, well, in the morning, anything. Finally, anything. 

 

Even years later, Joel’s ex-wife was his emergency contact, and she had to call his parents, who identified the body and had it shipped home. They extended her an invitation for the funeral, but they left it at that.

The ruling was death by misadventure. The snowbank stopped up the tailpipe, and the car filled with carbon monoxide. Joel was drunk. His parents called it an accident. They chose a funeral home in downtown Fairfax because it had a hotel across the street for the family that would come. They found the most recent picture of their son that lacked evidence of intoxication.

Though still managed by the DePonte family, the funeral home had been owned by a chain for the last decade. When a sizable Arlington-based law firm contacted the owner, he didn’t ask for many details, just told them to come by after viewing hours. He had a class that night, and so told his son, Neil, to let them in when they came.

The lawyer, a dark-haired woman in her late thirties, showed up the night before Joel’s wake. She wore a navy-blue pantsuit and a bright white blouse that accentuated her tan, which she wore like a diamond necklace in early February. There was a man with her, whom she said was a photographer.

A high school senior, Neil didn’t care. But he couldn’t help but notice that the photographer seemed off. The young man had a distinct and powerful sense that the photographer, whose name he forgot immediately, had no business being in their house. The teenager couldn’t articulate what was wrong with the man. The photographer’s suit bunched or hung in strange places. And his deep-set eyes had a quality—like dark holes in the woods dug by an unknown critter—eyes that made Neil want to look away. He focused his attention on the lawyer who, though older, was pretty.

Neil showed them into the basement, where the body was kept in a small refrigerated room. Joel’s parents had dropped off a new suit that afternoon, and it hung in the prep room outside. Neil looked for a reason to keep talking to the woman, and showed them the intercom on the wall, with a black button to press if they needed anything. When it was clear she was about to ask him to leave, he said he had things to take care of, and left.

 

The first thing Joel noticed was that the man in front of him wasn’t a man, so much as a carefully arranged collection of shapes meant to pass as a man but concealing something like a machine and something like the weather. The not-man’s eyes seemed magnified by the deep shadows around them. And the eyes had a strange power to them. It took all the strength Joel had to look away, around the room, where he saw a woman in a pantsuit, who shifted her weight from one foot to another with an incredible slowness.

The not-man’s eyes pulled on Joel’s attention with a force like embarrassment or guilt. And fighting that pull, Joel caught sight of his own corpse, the chest-spanning Y-cut from the autopsy visible. He remembered where he’d been, and the stupid way he’d lost his life—radio on, carbon monoxide mixing with the stale heat. It scattered like a distant dream when he tried to grasp it.

“Who are you?” Joel said.

“Who are you asking?” the not-man responded. His voice was like a car horn and like a whisper. Joel noticed that the man had grown taller.

“You. Who are you? And why are you here?”

“I’m perfectly within my rights to be here. I’m here about a contract that you signed,” the not-man said, retrieving a thick tri-folded sheaf of printer paper from the breast pocket of his suit. He showed Joel the front page with its Communilutions Unlimited logo, and flipped through it, to the final page with Joel’s signature. “Is that your signature?”

“Yeah, for a cell phone. What does that have to do with this?”

The tall, crooked man flipped to the pages with the Non-Mortal-Element clause, which he held before Joel. As he focused, the meaning of the pages unfolded itself with a speed that surprised him. The tall man produced another contract and a black plastic ballpoint pen.

“What’s this?” Joel asked.

“It’s a document to confirm that you did indeed sign the contract that I’ve shown you and that you understand what it requires of you.”

“No.”

“No, what?”

“No, I won’t sign that, or anything else.”

“But you did sign the contract I’ve shown you, didn’t you?”

“I did.”

“And by signing a contract, you stated that you agree to the terms of the contract. Do you not?”

“I didn’t read the whole thing.”

“But did you sign it?”

“Yes.”

“And Communilutions Unlimited provided you with a phone, and with cellular and data service for the agreed-upon price and terms, did it not?”

“I guess so. They were fine.”

“So Communilutions Unlimited abided by the agreement, did it not?”

“It did.”

“So, to acknowledge that, will you please sign this?”

“What is it?”

“It is a legal affirmation stating that you did agree to the terms in the contract that you signed.”

Joel had the sense that he had been in the chilly room for a very long time at that point—hours and hours, cold and naked and otherwise alone. He had begun to lose the sense that there was any place outside of that room.

“What if I don’t sign it?”

“Then I’ll have to ask you to sign this instead,” said the man with the yellow, glowing eyes and skinny arms. He retrieved a much thicker document.

“What is that?”

“It is a legal confession that you refuse to fulfill the terms you agreed to in our contract and that you willingly accept any and all civil, criminal, or other penalties that might apply under the law.”

“I don’t think I want to sign that, either.”

“Well, you have two choices—either you sign the first one, and fulfill the obligations you agreed to when you signed the contract with Communilutions Unlimited, or you sign the legal confession here, and fulfill your legal obligations.”

“I think I should talk to a lawyer.”

“I am a lawyer. And I’m the only one who will ever come here to talk to you. And you can only sign one of the two documents here.”

“What if I don’t sign either one?”

“It doesn’t matter. You will still be obligated to fulfill the terms you agreed to in the contract you signed. Look, Joel, I have your credit report here,” the man said, retrieving yet another document from his jacket. “And I can see how hard you had to work to get your credit score above six hundred after your divorce. I know you don’t want to have to go through that again.”

“And this will hurt my score?”

“Yes, things like failing to fulfill your legal and financial obligations tend to do major damage to your credit score. That’s not even taking into account what a legal action on the part of Communilutions Unlimited would do.”

“And what’s my obligation here?”

“By your own admission, you have signed a contract in which you agreed to come with me.”

“I didn’t admit that.”

“But you stated to me that Communilutions Unlimited fulfilled all the terms of your agreement with it, didn’t you?”

“Yes.”

“And you stated that you knowingly, with sound mind, signed the contract?”

“I guess so,” Joel said, rubbing his eyes. At this point, it felt as though the interrogation had been going on for months. He felt a pull to go outside, though he had trouble picturing what the world outside might even look like.

“And given the contract that you agreed to, you have to abide by its terms, do you not?”

Joel could hear a note of boredom in the sibilant-and-honk voice of the towering not-man. It was a tiredness that was all too familiar to Joel. His ex-wife, his dead-end jobs, his court-ordered community-service supervisors, all had that in their voices—the sound of a game lost before it’s been played. It was as familiar as a truck backing up in the morning, or the bull roar of a bouncer emptying a bar at closing time, or the short siren chirp of a cop just doing his job. Joel could feel the net tightening on him with each question.

Returning to the original mobile phone contract, the not-man folded it to the last page, which Joel had signed. The interrogator asked him to affirm the signature, for what felt like the thousandth time. And Joel tried to find a memory, a foothold against the mounting evidence, but all that seemed to come up was that humid afternoon in the middle of his divorce, trudging to that sad shopping plaza to get a phone. It seemed the summation and center of his entire life.

The stranger fixed him in its not-eyes. Their yellowish glint matched the voice and restrained him with a smoky mix of promise and fear. The yellow, the voice, the feeling of it conspired to reveal to Joel the outlines of his disappointing life. And Joel found his anger, strong now for having been ignored for so long. It overpowered the urge to keep looking into the interrogator’s gaze.

And in that moment, Joel was angry and desperate enough to see what he could never grasp in life: Truth is a trap. It had always been a trap constructed and cared for, set, and checked by forces that didn’t necessarily have his best interests at heart. He could see that a lie is not a statement. An evasion of reality is no shameful defeat. They are acts of will. And Joel realized, in his rage, that his will was still his own.

“Can I leave?” Joel asked.

“You’ve signed a contract that requires you to come with me.”

“Can I?”

“How could you possibly leave while you’re under a legally binding obligation?”

“Can I?”

“You tell me. Is there anything in the contractual obligation with Communilutions Unlimited that you signed and dated that says you can leave?”

“But can I?”

“Given what you agreed to, after this extremely patient explanation—I very rarely take this long with any customer—why would you do anything except come with me?”

“Fuck it. I’m leaving.”

“Don’t you think there will be consequences for breaking a legal contract?”

“I guess I’ll see.”

Joel edged past the half-frozen businesswoman, and his own yellow-brown corpse, through an open door, into the crisp night air. The streetlights over Main Street were dim, but the stars hung like heavy fruit on overburdened branches, affirming a thousand dreams that he had forgotten until that very moment.


Colin Dodds is a writer with several acclaimed books to his name. He grew up in Massachusetts and lived in California briefly, before finishing his education in New York City. He’s made a living as a journalist, editor, copywriter and video producer. Colin also writes screenplays, has directed a short film, and built a twelve-foot-high pyramid out of PVC pipe, plywood and zip ties. He lives in New York City, with his wife and children. You can find more of his work at thecolindodds.com.

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